Tim’s aquatint etchings draw on his love of nature and his fascination with the use of birds and animals in storytelling across cultures and centuries. He explains how a Goya exhibition raised questions in his mind – and led to a new career as a printmaker.
How did you get into printmaking?
I saw a Goya exhibition in Porto with my mother-in-law, Jan, and we both marvelled at the magic and mystery of how the etchings might have been created. We left the exhibition with many questions unanswered. A few weeks later, I took an ‘Introduction to printmaking’ course led by Nick Richards at Thames-Side Studios in Woolwich. It was wonderful to have some of the printmaking process revealed and to begin to learn about the challenges and joy involved in creating etching and aquatint prints. It set me on a new path in life.
You specialise in etching and aquatint. What is it that you like about those techniques?
I like the challenge involved in etching and aquatint and the mystery of what may finally be achieved on a plate to create a print. I love how there’s always something new to learn. There are so many variables and external factors that play a part in a print’s production. It is the battle – the progressions and many failures, and working on these failings to try to resurrect a plate – that makes printmaking a very enjoyable thing for me.
You often portray birds and animals in your prints. Where did that interest come from?
The use of birds and animals in storytelling across cultures and religions through the centuries has always intrigued me. Birds and animals to me are beautiful living, breathing creatures, but they can also be representations of themes and ideas. From my early readings of Aesop’s Fables and later Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th century Persian poem The Conference of the Birds, the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Rumi’s poetry, among many others, the way storytelling uses bird and animal imagery has always fascinated me.
The use of bird ‘characters’ as a vehicle for the teaching of morals, ethics, tolerance, respect and understanding has been widespread throughout the history of literature. Despite the fact that birds and animals live lives independent and starkly different from our own, throughout history people and cultures have given them special meanings and responded to them in terms of those meanings. In ancient Rome, augury was the practice of interpreting omens from the observed behaviour of birds. When the augur interpreted these signs, it was referred to as "taking the auspices". However, the use of auspices as a means to decipher the ‘will of the gods’ was more ancient than Rome itself.
I must add that although I do create a number of prints that portray birds, I don't limit myself just to that subject.
What is your working practice like? Do you spend a lot of time in nature to find your subjects?
All the birds in my prints are ones that I have been closely observing over the years, and particularly during the pandemic. Each day as I walk to the print studio from Greenwich along the Thames Path to Woolwich, with my wife Kate, I’m provided with a wide variety of birds for inspiration. My walk takes me alongside the Greenwich Ecology Park and beside the Thames and there are many bird species there all year round, from the seasonal migratory ones to those who have made the Thames their home.
I like to spend time studying these birds in their natural environment and as I develop my etchings, I return often to study and sketch them to guide me in the finer details and unique characteristics of each bird before beginning work on the plate.
Through the pandemic I have been fortunate to be able to use the Thames-Side Print Studio, which I think has been good for me in my progress as a printmaker. I’ve taught myself to make my own frames, which was a steep learning curve at first but now I’m enjoying completing the whole process from idea to framed print.
Myths and storytelling are an important part of your work. How did this come about?
After many years working in primary school settings in Europe and Asia telling and retelling stories, myths, legends and fairy tales involving many a talking bird, I have come to appreciate how important the animal element is for engaging and opening minds with imagination and questioning. With my print images, I like to capture birds and animals at some crucial point in the midst of a story, with that moment open to the interpretation of the beholder.
Do you think living and working in several different regions – New Zealand, Hong Kong, Portugual and England – has had an influence on your work?
Yes. There is a uniqueness about New Zealand’s flora and fauna and it is home to a multitude of birds. The fact that New Zealand was actually uninhabited by mammals of any shape and form until the 1300s when the first Maori arrived by boat meant that the native birds had free rein of a majestic land. Picture a land where there are no threats from rats, mice or cats. It’s the reason the country is home to so many flightless birds, because without predators, many of these birds had no need to fly. There is also an abundance of birds with extremely beautiful songs.
Subsequently, living in Europe and Asia has also exposed me to wildly differing cultures and environments, which have undoubtedly had an impact on my art.
My wife and I love travelling and exploring new places. Depicting wildlife in a natural setting is an appealing subject for me.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a group exhibition this summer at the Watts Contemporary Gallery called “An Artistic Aviary”. Obviously this is the ideal theme for much of my recent work and I’m very excited to be a part of the exhibition with several very talented artists. I’m also working on new plates all the time and continuing to develop my printmaking.
Tim’s beautiful aquatint etchings are available at the Greenwich Printmakers gallery all year round and you can see which days he will be our artist in residence there by looking at the calendar. For more information, see his artist’s page and his website. “An Artistic Aviary" runs at the Watts Contemporary Gallery in Surrey until September 12.